Kaczynski's coffin arrives home, mourning continues

 

The coffin of President Lech Kaczynski arrived back in Warsaw this afternoon a day after he and much of the country's elite were killed in a plane crash in Russia.

Poland's Acting President Bronislaw Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Kaczynski's identical twin brother Jaroslaw were among those meeting the coffin, draped in the red and white national flag, at Warsaw's military airport.

After a short religious ceremony at the airport, the coffin was driven under military escort to the presidential palace where it will be available for public viewing.

The elderly Tupolev plane crashed in thick fog near Smolensk in western Russia on Saturday, killing all 97 people on board. Kaczynski had been planning to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish officers by Soviet forces in a nearby forest.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin saw off Kaczynski's coffin in Smolensk at a short ceremony conducted with full military honours.

The bodies of the other victims, who included the top brass of Poland's armed forces and opposition lawmakers, were sent to Moscow for identification. Russian investigators were also analysing evidence from the flight recorders.

Millions of mourners packed into churches to pray for the dead. Thousands thronged the area in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw, transformed into a shrine festooned with flowers, candles, Polish red and white flags and portraits of the deceased.

Mr Komorowski and Mr Tusk laid candles in front of the Polish parliament as sirens rang at noon to mark two minutes of silence.

Mr Komorowski has declared a week of national mourning and has urged Poles to set aside their political differences at this time. Kaczynski, a combative right-wing nationalist, was a polarising figure who made many enemies.

"We worked together to build Polish democracy," said Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity movement that overthrew communism in 1989 and to which Kaczynski had belonged.

"Differences later pushed us apart... But that is a closed chapter now," said Mr Walesa, who often sparred with Kaczynski.

Mr Kaczynski's identical twin brother Jaroslaw, leader of Poland's main opposition Law and Justice Party (PiS) and a close political ally, flew to the crash site on Saturday to identify his sibling's body.

Ordinary Poles said the crash would leave deep scars. "I thought to myself this is a moment I'll always remember. Our grandparents lived through the war, our parents' generation experienced martial law (in 1981-83) and this is the big shock of today's younger generation," said Agata Malinowska, 22, a sociology student at Warsaw University.

"Perhaps this (tragedy) is a sign to us to stop quarrelling and backbiting among ourselves," said housewife Urszula Rutkowsa, 57.

Despite Poles' deep sense of loss, officials and analysts said the crash should not pose any serious threat to the political and economic stability of Poland, a staunch member of NATO and the European Union.

"We continue to monitor the situation and are ready to take various decisions, but we don't expect anything dangerous for the Polish economy to happen," Michal Boni, an aide to Mr Tusk, told a news conference on Sunday.

Mr Komorowski said he would set the date of a presidential election which had been due in October after holding talks with Poland's political parties. Under the constitution the election must now be held by late June.